Dear Publishers: Girls Read Comics, Too

Evie Nagy’s PW article “What a Girl Wants is Often a Comic” presents a great overview of comics and the girls who love them. Dark Horse, Slave Labor Graphics, and Oni Press are doing a bang up job of creating stories that range in appeal to everyone from the Hannah Montana mall crowd to the cerebral Persepolis coterie (not an easy thing to do).

But what about the Big Two, DC and Marvel? Sure, there are a few if you look, but apparently the crash and burn of DC’s Minx young adult graphic novel line indicates “…that a market for alternative young adult comics does not exist in the capacity to support an initiative of this kind, if at all.”

Oh, really? Just because the distributor in this case, Random House, was unable to get its coveted shelf placement for these graphic novels, there’s barely a market? R u nuts?

Here’s the deal: Most girls love to read and would adore reading great comics—it’s just that sometimes they don’t even know it yet.

Take a stroll through your resident bookstore, and you’re likely to see girls ages 10-16 flocking around the manga section. Shojo manga (i.e., Japanese comics aimed at girls) reels ’em in by the busload. And sales are booming, even in these economically ailing times.

Manga currently dominates graphic novel sales, according to Nielsan BookScan. As recently as November, 2008, twelve manga titles appeared in the top 20, with the shojo title Fruits Basket bounding in at number two.

Clearly, girls aren’t averse to the comics medium itself. So why aren’t they devouring American comics? Upon close inspection, it doesn’t all boil down to a lack of attraction to the wall-to-wall caped machismo. There are myriad reasons.

Historically, we’ve conditioned girls—and ourselves—to believe that Superman, Spider-Man et al are just for boys and boys alone. Nowadays, the mentality is closer to prevailing that they’re for both boys and adults. Uh…yippee? With that kind of brainwashing attitude prevailing, publishers can’t expect girls to flock to the medium just because shazam!…an imprint appears with titles on store shelves (or not, in the case of Minx).

Nagy’s article points out a few key factors that make comics appealing for girls, such as character-driven stories, stories that speak to their experiences (taking into account developmental ages/needs/milestones is a plus), and validating their experiences through relatable characters and situations. But even if the product is available, getting comics into the hands of eager girls across the globe can be a daunting prospect, and it’s no wonder few have tackled the problem successfully.

Girl readers are out there. They’re waiting. They’re willing to experiment with a variety of stories and mediums. You, my dear publishers, just have to know where to find them—and more importantly, how to nurture them. Planting seeds today in full anticipation of greeting trees filled with fully ripened apples (and sales) tomorrow is drinking a bit too much from the Kool-Aid Panglossianism well. Oh, noOOoo!

So what can we do? Here are a few ideas I’d like to throw out there.

1) Strongly consider a line of e-comics for girls: Think of the potential for online discussion groups, texting, forums, etc. Social networking is important.

2) Small presses may be the new kings of this niche market: Parents, here’s a job for you: help your daughters navigate the Web to find them.

3) Lose the old-school comic shop mentality: With their oft musty smelling carpets and dark, dusty corners—eww!—it’s not an appealing hangout for young female readers. And store owners, ask your staff not to treat girls/women who patronize your store as if they’re lost/ignorant/alien. If they feel uncomfortable, their dollars will go elsewhere. While you’re at it, stock a few cosplay accessories. Instead of plain plastic sleeves and—yawn—boring white boxes for storage, create jazzy comic book jackets/folders/portfolio style storage options.  Finally, if we’re venturing into (Amazing) Fantasy land, why not a comic store just for girls? Stuff it with comfy, oversized chairs splashed with funky colors and smart designs. Decorate the walls with comic covers and/or related art/posters.

4) Start a mailing list: Send girls an electronic greeting and/or offer a free in-store comic on their birthday. If you’re a publisher backed by a big corporation, you know how well loss leaders can work.

5) Keep the prices affordable: Many teens have disposable income, but $3.99 a pop ain’t gonna cut it.

6) Go straight to the source and conduct focus groups: Chat with tweens and teens to find out what kinds of stories they already like, what they’d like to see more of, and what obstacles they face in finding comics. You may discover an opportunity to offer similar titles related to what they are already reading instead of trying to manufacture something you think they want. Ask about their purchasing habits—can they even get their parents to drive them to the nearest comic store/bookstore?

But the onus for encouraging girls to read comics shouldn’t entirely rest on the LCS/publishers’ shoulders. Here are a few ideas for the rest of us:

• Be a mentor. Or create a comics mentor program. Not only can you be instrumental in building a girl’s reading habits, but you can also tap into your vast experience of graphic novels to show her a really cool place in which her imagination can soar. Have an esoteric repository of comic book knowledge? Now it’s not just for conventions anymore!

• Comic shop owners, partner with libraries who foster a supportive attitude about comics. Work with librarians to develop a reading program centered around comics. Invite local teens to run comic clubs/discussion groups. Libraries or comic book stores could also host swap meets aimed at girls where they could trade with other readers for new reads (a bonus for the environment, too!)

• Parents and teachers could help students organize after school comics clubs (boys invited, of course).

• Take advantage of programs for disadvantaged youth. Engage the therapists, teachers, and program administrators associated with such programs and ask about donating comics (with age appropriate content, naturally). Even better, if your daughter is tired of her Emily Strange collection, have her accompany you to donate it in person. Encourage her to write a letter describing why she thinks it will appeal to the program’s teens. Positive peer influence powers, activate!

The above list is a starting point, with emphasis on starting, since this wouldn’t (and couldn’t) be an overnight process. But again, publishers need to think long term, not short term. Comics and girls are potentially a great match.

Those are my initial thoughts. So what are some other ideas for attracting more girls to comics? Let’s hear some more from you!

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